Here’s the first in a series of posts inspired by the TESOL Spain conference in Bilbao. Which in turn was inspired by the ever photogenic Guggenheim building right opposite on the other side of the river.
After the conference one of the people I talked to there tweeted a great post conference motto:
But rather than consciously trying things out, I found things myself getting flashbacks to ideas and impressions that had struck a chord. This is the first conference flashback story. The flashback was to the first session I attended on Saturday morning. At 9am. A great session by a great speaker and teacher, Chris Roland. If you know him, you’ll know what I mean. If you don’t, you really have to check out his blog.
Chris’ session was wonderful. It made me laugh, it made me cry. As with all the sessions I enjoyed over the weekend, what came over more than anything else was a strong imprint of a teacher with a clear teaching philosophy and personality, and underlying energy applying itself creatively to real teaching situations. Click on this link to find out more.
The week after the conference I was back in class. Well, not quite. A change in schedules meant that me and my class were actually without a classroom. That wasn’t too big a problem. The sun was shining and the big, wide schoolyard was almost completely empty. As I made the decision to adapt our lesson to the freedom of so much space, I was taken back to Chris’s delicate balance between creativity and control. Using space and controlling it at the same time.
It was totally fortuitous that the lesson I’d planned suited an open air class perfectly. Chris had presented various ideas for using the space in and around class to structure student creativity and his ideas gave my lesson (written before the conference) a new framework. We were talking about malls and shops and the main task was to design a small mall near the school. There was a simple handout and a ground plan to complete. Here are the notes and handout I shared with the other teachers teaching the same year. Build your own mall.
In my original plan I’d earmarked a site where there have been plans for years to build some kind of sports/social/shopping centre. All building plans are shelved at the moment, but the students are familiar with the spot and it’s just round the corner from their school. But of course, there we were in the playground, and the obvious thing was for them to draw up a plan for a mall to be built on their playground, in the space around them.
We did the first few controlled activities sat in a row on a low wall. The fact of being outdoors meant that I had to exert more control than usual over the class. There were no containing walls, so the containment had to be my – and their – ability to centre their attention on the activity in hand. I upped my schoolmarm persona, they upped their behaviour. It worked beautifully. They concentrated, they listened, they discussed, with the promise of being allowed to roam the yard in the second half of the class as an incentive to good behaviour.
And when it came to roaming they didn’t actually roam that far. I let them choose where they wanted to go to plan the transformation of the playground into their ideal shopping centre. They all settled down in small huddles on the ground, cross-legged, lying on their bellies, sprawled … but intent on their task. In fact a lot more intent and focused than they usually are. We managed somehow to strike a perfect balance between the freedom of the space around them and the discipline of the task.
And they performed well in the task. They took it seriously. Some needed a little nudging in the right direction. I sat down with them on the floor to talk things through, question some decisions and the novelty of working cross-legged together on the floor seemed to work some kind of magic too. Again the novelty factor I guess.
And throughout the lesson little flashbacks to Chris’s session kept me focused and interested too. An internal monologue of reflection running quietly in the back of my mind.